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September 25, 2019

1 in 4 doctors face sexual harassment from patients. Here's how Mayo handles it.

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    In 2017, Mayo Clinic implemented a program to address sexual harassment from patients, reflecting a slowly changing approach in the industry toward a problem that at times has been regarded as "part of the job," Jacquelyn Corley reports for STAT News.

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    1 in 4 doctors report sexual harassment from patients

    According to a survey last year from Medscape, 27% of the more than 6,000 surveyed doctors said that they had experienced sexual harassment from patients in the last three years.

    It's a workplace hazard that many physicians seem simply to try to ignore. Elizabeth Viglianti, an associate professor in pulmonary and critical care at the University of Michigan, said that when she asks other providers about how they deal with sexual harassment from patients, they often say, "It's just part of the job."

    According to Sharonne Hayes, a cardiologist and medical director of Mayo's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, hospitals historically have done little to address the problem. "Most health care programs had 20 policies in place that protect patients, but not one that had a policy to protect staff from patients," she said.

    Without a set policy in place, many doctors aren't sure how to handle patients who act inappropriately, Corley writes. They may fear that, if they confront the patient, the patient might submit a complaint to administrators or provide a poor rating on customer satisfaction surveys or online reviews, Corley reports.

    Mayo's program

    In an effort to better confront the problem, Mayo in 2017 implemented a formalized program for responding to sexual harassment from patients. The program spells out a policy for addressing patient behavior, protocols for handling patients who behave inappropriately, and training for all staff and students. The program also outlines a reporting structure for providers to use after an incident of sexual harassment occurs.

    Hayes said, "[O]ur employees feel much more confident about their role in sexual harassment incidents, what they should and should not do, and that Mayo has their back."

    For instance, the policy was used last year when a male patient groped a female doctor in the presence of a number of staff members. That doctor notified hospital administration using Mayo's new program, and the patient was removed from the physician's practice within 48 hours, Corley writes.

    Other hospitals adopt similar programs

    According to Hayes, a growing number of hospitals are implementing policies similar to Mayo's, in part due to increasing rates of physician burnout and mental illness.

    "These two issues often result from the accumulation of multiple factors including stress, anxiety, and a loss of control of one's work and environment," Hayes said. "Since harassment contributes to all of these factors, I have no doubt that being harassed or poorly treated by patients is additive to all the other challenges faced by doctors, nurses and other members of the health care team" (Corley, STAT News, 9/12).

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